Democracy Now ! / March 28, 2023
Yousef Munayyer – Palestinian American analyst and senior non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC.
Natasha Roth-Rowland – editor and writer at +972 Magazine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to delay a push to overhaul and weaken Israel’s judiciary until the next parliamentary session. The retreat came after months of unprecedented mass protests and a general strike on Monday that shut down much of Israel. Netanyahu had earlier fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for suggesting a delay to judicial changes. In a concession to his far-right governing allies, Netanyahu has also agreed to establish a new national guard under the control of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist national security minister who was once convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians and supporting a terrorist group. “He already has an immense amount of power over police forces that regularly inflict violence on Palestinians. Now there is talk of him having this national guard,” journalist Natasha Roth-Rowland, an editor with +972 Magazine, says of Ben-Gvir. We also speak with Palestinian American analyst Yousef Munayyer, who says the public outrage over the judicial plan is due to many Israelis seeing their own rights threatened for the first time. “The rights of Palestinians … have not been upheld by these courts for a very long time,” says Munayyer.
VIDEO : Palestinians to Pay the Price as Netanyahu Pauses Judicial Overhaul While Further Empowering Far Right | Democracy Now!
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re starting with international news. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to delay a push to overhaul and weaken Israel’s judiciary until the next parliamentary session, following unprecedented mass protests. Netanyahu made the announcement on Monday after much of Israel was shut down by a general strike.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] We insist on the need to bring forth the necessary amendments to the judicial system, and will allow the opportunity to achieve them through a wide consensus. It is an utmost worthy cause. Therefore, out of national responsibility, out of the will to prevent the rift in the nation, I have decided to suspend the second and third readings of the law in this term of the Knesset in order to allow the time to reach that wide consensus ahead of the legislation during the next Knesset. This way or the other, we will bring a reform that will reinstate the lost balance between the authorities, while preserving — and, I will add, strengthening — civil rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Netanyahu spoke Monday, one day after he fired Israel’s defense minister, who had warned that the judicial overhaul represents a, quote, “clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state,” unquote.
While the general strike was called off after Netanyahu’s announcement, protests have continued. On Monday night, Israeli police fired water cannons and stun grenades to disperse protesters in Tel Aviv.
In a concession to the far right, Netanyahu agreed to establish a new national guard under the control of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s ultranationalist national security minister, who was once convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians and supporting a terrorist group.
We’re joined now by two guests. Natasha Roth-Rowland is editor and writer at +972 Magazine. She just completed her history doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the Jewish far right in Israel, Palestine and the United States. She’s joining us now in New York City. And from Alexandria, Virginia, we’re joined by Yousef Munayyer. He is a Palestinian American analyst, senior non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin by talking about exactly what’s happening now in the streets. Yousef Munayyer, these are mass protests, unprecedented in the history of the state of Israel. They are protesting the overhaul and weakening of Israel’s judiciary. They are not talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as Palestinians continue to be killed on the West Bank. If you can talk, from your perspective, overall, what’s happening?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, thanks for having me, Amy.
You’re absolutely right. The protesters in the streets are focused on what they see as a threat to them, and not really a threat to Palestinians, by these legislative reforms, which aim to further weaken the court system in Israel. It’s important to point out that this is a process that did not start with this government and that the court system in Israel has been weakened for some time. But with this government, a religious nationalist government, there are many Israelis who see the government’s agenda as a major power grab that’s attempting to reshape Israeli society in a way that will disadvantage them, which, you know, “them” being primarily nonreligious, nationalist Israelis and secular Israelis. And so, they are perceiving for the first time a threat, not to the court system, but a threat to the court system that will actually weaken their rights. The rights, of course, of Palestinians have not been upheld, whether Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem. They have not been upheld by these courts for a very long time. It was not until, though, that these communities in Israel who are protesting today recognized a direct threat to their own rights that they decided to mobilize in mass in this way.
And I think this really underscores just how deep the consensus is within Israel about the apartheid system and discrimination against Palestinians. Clearly, Israeli society has always had the capacity — we’re seeing it on display now — to challenge their government’s policies when they understand them to be unfair. But it seems that Israeli society does not think its treatment of Palestinians, which, of course, the human rights community and many others, including Israeli human rights organizations, concluded amounts to apartheid — they don’t seem to see a problem with that. What we’re seeing in the streets today is unprecedented as far as Israeli society goes, but the mistreatment and discrimination against Palestinians is not unprecedented at all and is baked into the foundation of the political system in Israel.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Yousef, speaking about the foundation of the political system, you’ve made a point that Israel does not have a written constitution. Why? And what is the significance of that in the present moment?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, I mean, this is one of the core points here, because you have two different branches of government: the parliament, and the government that was put together through the parliamentary elections, and the courts, which are essentially locked in a battle over power. And the parliament and the government is demanding that it has the authority to essentially claim greater powers over the courts, be able to override court decisions with a simple majority.
These kinds of matters are usually outlined in a foundational document, in a supreme law like a constitution, that limits the powers of different branches of government and makes clear rules about where power lies and in what situations. Israel doesn’t have a constitution, and it doesn’t have a constitution for very important reasons. In fact, when Israel was created and declared in 1948 in their Declaration of Independence, they promised that they would adopt a constitution within a few months after declaring independence, in line with the expectations of the international community and the United Nations when they put forward the 1947 partition plan. And, in fact, the Declaration of Independence copied language from that partition plan about the need to guarantee rights of equality for people regardless of religion and ethnic origin, and so on and so forth.
At the time, Israel was interested in gaining international legitimacy, but what they found was, if they were going to adopt a constitution, they’d have to limit state power in ways that would make it much harder for them to carry out their settler-colonial project in Palestine. If they had to accept equality before the law, they couldn’t take land away from Palestinians and privilege Jews coming in from outside of the country to take their place. And so, they didn’t end up adopting a constitution and allowed the state to have maximum flexibility to carry out the settler-colonial project. And, in fact, that project, which continues to this day, is one of the main reasons why Israeli politics has gone so far right that you see the kind of extremists in government today that in years prior were on the fringes of society.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Natasha Roth-Rowland to ask about the history of Itamar Ben-Gvir, someone you have studied for a while. Again, Netanyahu has agreed to establish a new national guard under his control, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister. He’s an ultranationalist politician who openly supports the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. In 2007, he was convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians and supporting a terrorist group. His radicalism dates back decades. I want to go to a few clips. In an October 1995 interview, Ben-Gvir can be seen holding an ornament taken from the slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car by far-right Israeli activists during a protest against him, when he was alive, and the Oslo Accords.
ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: [translated] People managed to get to this symbol from Rabin’s car. The symbol is a symbol, and it symbolizes that just as we got this symbol, we can get to Rabin.
AMY GOODMAN: Just weeks after that interview, a Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. For years, Ben-Gvir hung a picture in his home of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli American who killed 29 Palestinians at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. In 2011, Ben-Gvir told a reporter why he chose to put Goldstein’s photograph on the wall of his home.
ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: [translated] He’s a righteous man. He’s a hero. This is a doctor who saved Jews throughout his life.
AMY GOODMAN: In October, Itamar Ben-Gvir waved a gun and shouted during a confrontation in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, where settlers have attempted to violently evict Palestinian residents from their homes.
ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: [translated] If they, Palestinians, throw stones, shoot them.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Mahmoud Sa’u, a Palestinian who lives in Sheikh Jarrar, describing Itamar Ben-Gvir’s actions in his neighborhood.
MAHMOUD SA’U: [translated] This field office is within the plan to take over Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the houses there. He sets up his tent here and starts pointing at houses that he wants to take. My house is under threat. My neighbor’s house is also under threat. We all receive eviction orders or accords to increase in rent, also orders not to build or renovate. …
He used to come here and make trouble for everyone. Imagine a Knesset member pulling out his gun towards the people in the neighborhood. We have children and women here. So what do you expect from him if they assigned him as the minister of public security or any ministerial position? Of course he will be more confident and relieved. But as my neighbor said, we don’t care. Even if he was a prime minister, we are staying in our houses here. This is our legitimate right to defend our houses and children.
AMY GOODMAN: And it was after this that the now once-again Prime Minister Netanyahu named Itamar Ben-Gvir the secretary of national security. Natasha Roth-Rowland, talk more about his significance and being put in charge of what they’re now shaping to be a national guard. Some are calling it Ben-Gvir’s private militia.
NATASHA ROTH-ROWLAND: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on the show, Amy.
As we saw from all these clips, Itamar Ben-Gvir is somebody who sees violence as a legitimate means to a political end, whether he is engaging in that violence himself or inciting it directly or indirectly. He has a long track record of aggression, provocation, showing up to the site of political tensions and encouraging further tensions, encouraging further violence. He has pulled a gun on Palestinians himself at least twice. That’s what we have documentary evidence of. We don’t know if he’s done it more than that. He has encouraged police to shoot protesters. That was before he became national security minister.
As you say, he was appointed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Now that he is national security minister, he’s in charge of all of Israel’s police. That’s the regular police and the border police, which patrols inside the occupied West Bank. So he already has an immense amount of power over police forces that regularly inflict violence on Palestinians. Now there is talk of him having this national guard, which he’s been lobbying for for some time. He is not the first person to come up with this idea. It was bandied around by the previous government, as well, under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. But now, as this kind of exchange for not quitting the government in response to Netanyahu deciding to temporarily put on pause these judicial overhaul plans, Netanyahu has given Ben-Gvir even more potential power. Netanyahu is responsible for a lot of the power that Ben-Gvir has right now. He has helped shepherd him in from the political margins into the mainstream, giving him this unprecedented level of influence. What happened yesterday is another step in that direction. It’s not clear at the moment when exactly this national guard will be established and what form it will take, but the terminology of calling it basically Ben-Gvir’s private militia, I think, is quite accurate.
And if we put that in the context of some of the civil violence that we’ve seen enacted by settlers against Palestinians both in the Occupied Territories and inside the Green Line, we get a kind of frightening preview of what this national guard might look like. As we saw in May 2021, during this period of immense violence and unrest on both sides of the Green Line, and as we saw in the Huwara pogrom at the end of last month, when around 400 far-right religious settlers invaded this Palestinian town in the West Bank, smashing up homes, setting homes on fire while they still had Palestinian families inside them, setting cars on fire, assaulting Palestinians — one Palestinian man was killed in another town — you saw this collusion between settlers and between Israeli security forces. There’s even video footage of Israeli security forces idling by the side of the road while settlers were in the progress of attacking a Palestinian house. So, when you look at this combination of settlers and soldiers and Israeli police either colluding to assault Palestinians, or Israeli security forces simply standing by, and then you take into account the fact that there’s this potential new guard being set up, at the behest of a figurehead of a national camp that saw what happened in Huwara and liked what they saw and said that they wanted to see more of it, it’s just a terrifying prospect.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Natasha, I wanted to ask you about what is occurring within the Israeli Defense Forces — clearly, the firing by Netanyahu of the defense minister over the weekend, and then the open letter of a bunch of pilots and reservists protesting these judicial reforms. What is the potential impact on the military of these actions by this extreme right-wing government?
NATASHA ROTH-ROWLAND: Actually, this morning, the main reservists’ protest group, that is reserve military officers, signaled that they were going to suspend their protest because of Netanyahu’s announcement that he’s putting the judicial overhaul plans on pause. They’ve said that they don’t believe what Netanyahu said. They don’t trust that he is going to scale back these plans. That’s what a lot of other protest leaders have said, as well, over the last 48 hours.
But this was the main reason that the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said that he believed the overhaul should be frozen, or, you know, they should take more time to negotiate what the overhaul was going to look like before pressing ahead with the legislation. For him, this was not a moral or an ethical issue; it was a security issue. He worried that the increasing number of reservists who were signaling that they weren’t going to show up to their reserve duty was going to cause real security concerns for the country. He also thought that it made the country look weak before its enemies in the Middle East. So, that’s really what the impact was on the Israeli military establishment.
It’s not yet clear what Gallant’s future looks like. As of last night, Netanyahu had not sent the mandatory letter to Gallant giving him 48 hours’ notice of his firing. As of this morning, I hadn’t heard that that has been sent. Maybe it has by now. But until that is in place, Gallant is, essentially, still in his position. So, it remains to be seen what Gallant’s future holds and also whether the reservists do indeed go back on strike if the judicial overhaul plans press ahead in a few weeks’ time.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Yousef, your response, and how you’re sensing Palestinians feel about Ben-Gvir being put in charge of this new national guard, this new national guard unit?
YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, well, I think, in response to everything that’s going on, you know, Palestinians feel very much excluded from the conversation and also don’t want to be included in a conversation that ostracizes them, as the Israeli debate largely has. But Palestinians, even though Israel is going through tremendous unrest right now, are not just sitting back and enjoying the show. They are, in fact, in a position of extreme vulnerability right now, as they always have been, but in a heightened way, because these religious nationalists, who have really carried out scores of attacks against Palestinians in villages in the West Bank and elsewhere, are increasingly being empowered right now.
You know, we talk about Ben-Gvir’s militia. Ben-Gvir’s militia has long existed in the West Bank and in these settlements that are routinely carrying out violence against Palestinians, often in tandem or with at least the protection of the Israeli military. And we’re talking now about a militia that is going to become increasingly formalized, under the direction of a minister in the government, with the protection of a government that has a majority, and with access to greater weapons and resources.
Make no mistake about it: These people are looking to harm and eliminate the Palestinian people and are quite transparent about that in their rhetoric. They see this space as space that only belongs to Israeli Jews and that Palestinians have no space there. That type of eliminationist and genocidal rhetoric is now going to have the backing of a government minister in ways that it didn’t have before. So, there’s certainly greater concern now than, I think, ever before about the physical safety of Palestinians, who are, as always, going to pay the heaviest price for what is taking place in Israel today.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yousef Munayyer, we want to thank you for being with us, Palestinian American analyst, now senior non-resident fellow at Arab Center in Washington, D.C., and Natasha Roth-Rowland, editor and writer at +972 Magazine